The problem with graduate student training fellowships

October 28, 2010

such as the NIH NRSA F31 mechanism, is this.

The announcement says the following about the purpose of the program (emphasis added).

The proposed predoctoral research training must offer an opportunity to enhance the fellow’s understanding of the health-related sciences and extend his/her potential for a productive, independent research career. The application should document the need for the proposed research training and the expected value of the proposed fellowship experience as it relates to the individual’s goals for a career as an independent researcher.

ok. And just how might we expect to find such an “opportunity”?

The sponsoring institution must have adequate faculty and facilities available to provide a suitable research environment for a high-quality research training experience. The proposed research training experience must enhance the applicant’s conceptualization of research problems and research skills. The sponsor should be an active investigator in the proposed area of research, and be committed both to the research training of the applicant and to the direct supervision of the applicant’s research. Applicants are encouraged to identify more than one mentor, i.e., a mentoring team, if this is deemed advantageous for providing expert advice in all aspects of the research and training program. In such cases, one individual must be identified as the principal sponsor who will oversee and coordinate the applicant’s research training program. The primary sponsor, or a member of the mentoring team, should have a successful track record in mentoring predoctoral students. The research training should occur in a research-intensive environment that has appropriate human and technical resources and is demonstrably committed to research training in the particular program proposed by the applicant.

In practice, this means a successful applicant needs to be already enrolled in a well-respected graduate program at a high-falutin research University. The primary mentor has to be a BigCheezDoodle scientist of international repute who has already mentored a swath of trainees who are currently occupying professorial jobs. The mentor’s laboratory had better be larded up with research funds and be pumping out the papers with regularity as well.

Ok, ok, so this is not an obligation…but it sure does help with reviewers if these kinds of elements are to be found in an F31 application.

But here’s my problem. If the applicant graduate student already has this available, the good training program and the awesome mentor…she. doesn’t. need. a. fellowship. to. provide. her. with. an. “opportunity”. She doesn’t need the fellowship to enhance her training much either. She’s in a strong training program with a strong mentor and kickingly productive laboratory.

All the fellowship does, is increase the number of worker bees trainees the BigCheezDoodle can have working in his laboratory. Basically, the fellowship for Grad Student Doe only benefits Grad Student Smith who the PI can now take into the lab because his proprietary slot on the Institutional training grant has now opened up or because it frees up a salary line on one of his five R01s!

So what would it look like if the NIH leaned more heavily on the idea of using F31 NRSA graduate student fellowships to provide opportunities that would be otherwise unavailable? This would mean a bias for primary mentors who were struggling, wouldn’t it? Mentors who didn’t have much in the way of research funding would surely be able to provide a better training environment if the grad student didn’t cost any money to the lab.

Extra points for applicants from poorly-funded graduate programs (no Institutional Training Grants!) so as to boost those programs upwards, right? This would have all the positive synergy benefits claimed in those Institutional Training Grant awards.

The obvious drawback, from where I sit, is that you churn out more trainees who have acquired training that is better…but still isn’t top flight. And I suppose that is the question. Are the F31s really just there to lard up the successful laboratories with yet more money so as to increase, on a population basis, the number of top flight training slots that are available? And all this “opportunity” for the specific applicant business is just window dressing?

Maybe they should scrap the Individual NRSAs in favor of more Institutional training grants, if this is the real goal.

No Responses Yet to “The problem with graduate student training fellowships”

  1. anon Says:

    F31’s are there so people who are established and in the club can be more productive. Institutional NRSA’s are the same thing….no?


  2. You are lucky if you can get an F31, that is if you can apply for an one. My applicable ICs only offers diversity-related F31s but we are lucky in that our department has a T31 training grant but it seems to be only the same BigCheezPI’s who can get their students onto that money.


  3. GR makes a good point re: participating ICs. It’s not particularly clear up front, at least on the main F31 landing page, that only select ICs award these to anyone, while others only give diversity awards. I’ve known 2 grad students who completed the application to find out they weren’t eligible because the appropriate IC did not accept non-diversity apps.


  4. Bashir Says:

    With the NIH at least there’s a weird conflict in the language of these announcements between the funding going where there is need (opportunity) versus it being a prize for those with the best research situations.


  5. kevin. Says:

    I had never heard of these until joining my postdoc lab. Institutional TG’s sure, but not individuals.

    A PhD student in my not-well-funded&not-big-cheez lab got one. Two students in the lab across the hall with a PI of similar stature have gotten one. I think it’s a really great opportunity for students to articulate and defend their project for peer review and cash. Since they are uncommon, I think it would help them as they head into their PhD to have established that they can write for and obtain their own money. Plus it’s a bonus to have one less salary to pay.


  6. drugmonkey Says:

    I think it would help them as they head into their PhD to have established that they can write for and obtain their own money.

    This is indeed the case. It is a good thing to have one of these on the CV, I was slightly dismissive of this particular benefit in my post. Starting to lay down a record of seeking funding is probably the biggest advantage to landing an F31.


  7. ginger Says:

    I don’t think public health works the same way as basic science and biomedicine, because my department (epidemiology) had lots of grad students without any money for their dissertation, including me. If I hadn’t won an F31, I would have finished years later than I did, and I was at a very large, fairly well-respected research university with a major hospital complex and a very close relationship with a Major Cancer Research Center. The department had access to a bunch of ITGs, but I think they were held through miscellaneous multidepartmental centers, and a lot of the slots got soaked up by MD/PhD students, because the PIs were pretty consistently med school faculty cross-appointed to the school of public health.

    If I hadn’t held the F31, I would basically have bounced from GRA to GRA for stipends, and I would have worked on gathering my diss data the rest of the time. I got my materials paid for with various small grants I dug up. My mentor helped a lot to find me these sources of funding, but she just wouldn’t have investigated my research question if I hadn’t pursued it, and she wouldn’t have had a dissertation student that year if I hadn’t found a way to pay for myself.


  8. Hmm, a predictable post.

    Basically, the fellowship for Grad Student Doe only benefits Grad Student Smith who the PI can now take into the lab because his proprietary slot on the Institutional training grant has now opened up or because it frees up a salary line on one of his five R01s!

    How can you ignore the fact that the fellowship for Grad Student Doe very much benefits Grad Student Doe’s CV and his future career prospects? Any student who gets this fellowship from any particular lab will benefit, regardless of whether or not her lab needed the $$.


  9. drugmonkey Says:

    see comment, Candid, see comment. sheesh.


  10. DM, should we scrap F31’s in favor of more T31’s or just fund F31’s based solely off of the proposal and cut out most of the requirements for training environment and faculty criteria?


  11. DrugMonkey Says:

    The trouble with going from the scientific proposal is that you really have no idea who wrote it. These days the Fellowship research plans sound like they could slot right into a R01 proposal. This kind of sophistication from a second or third year graduate student? hmm, mebbe. mebbe not.

    So I’m reluctantly leaning toward more T31s, the Institutional slots. If this is how the F31 is going to be judged in reality, might as well just stop wasting everyone’s time with the F31 applications.


  12. I think I’m in agreement, there isn’t equal footing for the process based upon not just your proposal, but your PI, institution, and even if your IC offers a non-diversity related F31. I’ve seen some labs where the PI almost wrote the entire application and just put the trainee’s name on it to apply for the F31. Based on all this I’m in the camp of expanding T31s and maybe doing away with F31s.


  13. DrugMonkey Says:

    Where are the people railing about how we have too many PhD’s already and don’t need to generate any more?


  14. There’s no such thing as a “T31”. Institutional training grants are T32s, regardless of whether they support PhD students, post-docs, or both (which some do).


  15. ginger Says:

    (After I was awarded my PhD, I worked for a while on a T32 that supported both.)


  16. Where are the people railing about how we have too many PhD’s already and don’t need to generate any more?

    Never fear, the Mad Biologist is here. I agree, this seems like a self-reinforcing boondoggle. If we do want to supply funding specifically to create more Ph.D.s (a dubious proposition), then it should be done at programs with the infrastructure and critical mass to do so–it’s better for the students.


  17. icee Says:

    YES! Thank you for this post. I’m in the process of preparing an F31 proposal and I attend a rural Tier 2 university with modest NIH funding (but good NSF funds). I’m also trying to get my peers to apply as well, since no one from my school has that I know of. In looking at the list of F31 awardees, I was quite discouraged, as it seemed like the awards were distributed almost exclusively to those students whose schools/advisors were already rolling in the NIH dough. Okay, maybe some advisors weren’t rolling in it, but I didn’t see one school on the list that had modest NIH funds. It almost made me ditch the idea completely (as if the idea of filling out the daunting application without someone else’s prior experience to guide me wasn’t enough deterrent!)

    I actually see it as a lost cause for me, and I’m under no illusion that I’d actually get an award. I’m just hoping to get some experience navigating the application process. I’d feel happy just to get a score and some feedback. I must admit I feel bummed that were I doing the same research at a huge school, my proposal would almost certainly fare better. I haven’t called the program officer to talk to him, honestly, because I’m embarrassed for even wanting to apply.

    I realize that not every school should be a mega research school, and I’m cool with that. I like where I am and I came here for niche research. But I don’t think that our relative lack of NIH funds necessarily means that all our trainees do sub-standard work. I DO wonder about the utility of the non-diversity NRSAs in the way that they’re currently distributed, since they seem to omit trainees in situations similar to mine, or in non-participating NIH institutes. Perhaps there could be a small number of grad fellowships available specifically to students who aren’t at mega-schools, but who do neat stuff (similar to the R15 mechanism)? I’m late in my grad education for applying, and I’d like to know what early grad students would even think to apply without an advisor pushing them into it, i.e. BigCheezDoodle who knows the student will get the $. The application says my advisor has to be funded with R01 or equivalent, which made me spit out my coffee as I pondered what the hell the award is even supposed to accomplish. The faculty around me are super supportive, but no one is even asking their students to apply, probably because they know we’ll never get awards.


  18. Anon Says:

    This bit of insight about the research design and methods looking like they might drop nicely into an R01 app is enlightening… my NRSA applications as a grad student were the source of much angst as I got glowing remarks from the reviewers about the trainee, the PI and the university/environment/facilities/whathaveyou but my research design was picked to shreds.

    This result did not go over well with my graduate school mentor, who did say that the focus was *supposed* to be elsewhere. This was also the experience of the year-more-senior student in the lab who was funded by an F31.

    On one hand, I do feel like writing that app was a waste of my time. I could have gotten plenty done with that time. On the other hand, I did it all voluntarily for the experience, and the kind of whoa-what I got in return was a pretty major wake-up call for me as a potential NIH funding-seeker. (I’m talking about some pretty WTF reviewer comments.) This experience did end up having a small but maybe significant impact in my career track decisions.

    I was supported by a T32 for my first two years of grad school, but that is of little merit to the individual. It was an attractive force when deciding which grad school offer to accept, yes. (No teaching to distract from the classes/research? Sign my ass up! I’m petty.) Also, in that particular case, the T32 goes to fund the students in a top-5 program. More prestige for the already-prestigious. Who’s next in line for a proposed increase in T32 funding? The almost-as-prestigious programs who would add prestige by getting one of those mofos funded. Where is the benefit in this for the students in less privileged programs?


  19. Twittle Says:

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  20. […] but will be useful to make you seem with it when you get to the meeting. If you happen to hold an individual NRSA fellowship, this would be a good time to re-check the name of your PO! (And I simply must remind the […]


  21. […] but will be useful to make you seem with it when you get to the meeting. If you happen to hold an individual NRSA fellowship, this would be a good time to re-check the name of your PO. (Sadly, I must remind the […]


  22. miko Says:

    “Are the F31s really just there to lard up the successful laboratories with yet more money…?”



  23. nickwan Says:

    My advisor and a post doc informed me about individual training grants because our lab has no money. We do human development research for the most part, mostly funded through internal grants (no larger than $1000). So landing a fellowship like NSF GRFP or NIH F31 saves me from having to TA or take on GRA (a la a handful of the replies)

    The big thing for me is framing my fellowships and grants on my CV to be known as a “grant getter”. For whatever reason, these grants can separate me from the pack of people who didn’t receive funding. My feathers look brighter. I’m fluffier.

    I don’t know if that would imply I write stuff other reviewers believe is better or if my ideas are cutting-edge, but I do know it means my worth is literally in dollars. Grant dollars. And this is my first year in grad school.

    I play by the rules. And one of the rules of success is seemingly grant getting. So I’m working towards my grant getting badge. If the F31 didn’t exist, that isn’t a huge problem since there are so many other training and development grants out there — but it comes with that shiny NIH label. And that is worth something.


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